Tuesday’s 2-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light was Aston Villa’s most important result of the season to date. More important than the August 24 win at Anfield; more important than the October 17 win at home to Chelsea. Even more important than Saturday’s victory at Manchester United.
Without the three points on Wearside, Villa’s 1-0 win at Old Trafford would have meant absolutely nothing. Sure, they would have claimed a major scalp. But without consolidating the result by playing well and winning their next match, the euphoria of the weekend would have quickly evaporated, leaving only misgiving and self-doubt—characteristics all too familiar at Villa Park.
After beating Chelsea, for example, Villa played to a dour 1-1 draw at Wolves the next week, and followed that up by another score draw at Everton and a 2-1 defeat at Upton Park to open November. By then the Chelsea win was long forgotten, as was the Liverpool result before it—succeeded by an exit from the Europa League at the hands of Rapid Vienna.
To avoid the unease that followed those matches, Villa needed a positive performance against Sunderland. And they delivered.
Once again, James Milner was at the centre of it all, masterminding each of the guests’ attacking movements. His pinpoint pass to Emile Heskey in the 24th minute produced the opening goal of the contest and the England striker’s third goal in six matches. An in-form Heskey can only be a boon to Villa going forward. With the crowded Christmas fixture list officially underway, manager Martin O’Neill will need both of his big men—John Carew being the other—to be among the goals if his side are to prove themselves legitimate contenders for Champions League football.
Milner, meanwhile, rounded out the scoring just after the hour-mark when he gathered the ball, took a few strides and lashed a lethal effort from 25 yards that eluded Martin Fulop. It was the 23-year-old’s fifth goal of the season (he also has seven assists) and will most certainly have caught the eye of England manager Fabio Capello.
O’Neill won’t care so much about that. He’ll be far more chuffed by the fact his side have lost just one of their past eight matches away from Villa Park. That, and that they’ve managed to consolidate what many people were already beginning to murmur: that Aston Villa are finally for real. They’re finally poised to make a run at the top four.